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Center for Action and Contemplation

Emotional Sobriety and Letting Go

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Week 1

Emotional Sobriety
Thursday, November 19, 2015

Bill Wilson saw “emotional sobriety” as the final culmination of the Twelve Steps. Full sobriety is not just to stop drinking, but to become a spiritually awakened person who has found some degree of detachment from your own narcissistic emotional responses. The word emotion comes from the Latin for movement. It’s a body-based reaction that snags you quickly and urgently. The body holds shame, guilt, hurts, memories, and childhood conditioning. Emotions feel like truth. So it’s very hard to “unhook” from our feelings. This is true for all of us.

Emotions in and of themselves have no moral value; they are neither good nor bad. They are just sirens alerting us of something we should pay attention to. If we learn to listen to them instead of always obeying them, they can be very good teachers. We need to be aware that our emotions can mislead us because we often misread the situation. Emotions are far too self-referential and based in our early practiced neural responses, or what some call our defense mechanisms. Our basic “programs for survival,” which are the source of most emotions, are largely in place by the age of four or five. The three most common programs involve the needs for 1) survival and security, 2) affection and esteem, and 3) power and control. (These correlate to the head, the heart, and the gut centers of the Enneagram.)

We build our lives around our programs for survival, which we falsely assume will give us happiness. The problem is, these programs will not work in the long haul. They are almost entirely dependent on outside events and other people conforming to our needs. They are inherently unstable because your happiness moment by moment is based outside of yourself. All the great religions of the world at the highest levels would say God alone—something stable, inside us, and reliable—is the source of all sustained happiness. Once you encounter a Loving God (not the toxic, judgmental, punishing version of God that many of us have grown up with), you have found both your Ground and your Goal. John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, and many other mystics believed the experience of absolute union between God and the soul is essential to transformation. Then happiness is an “inside job” and not dependent on outer circumstances or other peoples’ response to you. Of course, you will still have ups and downs and emotions of all kinds, but they don’t have you. You don’t identify with them; you let them come and you let them go.

You could define your ego self as all the things you are attached to, including your own ways of thinking, feeling, and seeing, your program for happiness, your addictions, and your childhood conditioning. Even though you will find these are not working for you, like an addict, you keep doing them over and over again, thinking the result will change. The pattern becomes repetitive, obsessive, and compulsive. Your early spiritual practice must be anything that helps you recognize the problem, detach from this cycle, and stop the obsessive repetition of patterns. Over time, this practice will rewire the brain itself. It is work, even though grace keeps you doing the work!

Contemplation or Centering Prayer can help here. For twenty minutes perhaps, you choose to not cater to your thoughts, emotions, addictions, and programs for happiness. You are not allowing them to have you, but instead you have them—as a little listening and learning device. The Indwelling Holy Spirit is the Stable Witness that calmly joins you in compassionately observing your thoughts and emotions and then compassionately letting go of them. Bill Wilson called this Step 11, and I am told it is the one taught the least, because until the last decades we had very few teachers of true contemplative prayer.

Gateway to Silence:
Breathing in—receiving mercy; breathing out—letting go

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Emotional Sobriety: Rewiring Our Programs for “Happiness” (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2011), CD, DVD, MP3 download.

Image Credit: Two Women Sitting at a Bar (detail), Pablo Picasso, 1902, Blue Period, Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK
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